The Selma Campaign, “Bloody Sunday” and the Voting Rights Act 1965

Featured image: demonstrators facing state troopers, March 7, 1965. (National Archives Identifier 16899041) [source:]

In 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 24th amendment had been passed and African Americans were legally free to vote, quickly impacting local and national elections. In the south, however, white authorities still frequently obstructed the registration of black voters and civil rights activist attention soon shifted to the enforcement of voting rights of African Americans. In Selma, Alabama the electoral roll was only 2% black, despite previous registration campaigns.


On January 2 1965, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined the already locally acting Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in their Selma voting rights campaign. King and the SCLC helped organize marches and other demonstrations to generate national awareness for the local campaign. They anticipated that the known brutality of the local police force led by Sheriff Jim Clark would attract media attention and consequently increase pressure on both local and national government to act.

Sheriff Jim Clark, Dallas County Selma, Ala., stands in front of a group of African-Americans lined up at a side door of the Dallas County Court House in Selma on Jan. 21, 1965, as they drive to boost their voting strength from the present 300 to a 15,000 maximum and face arrest in the process. Sheriff Clark and his possemen have become a symbol of resistance to the African-American community, with clubs and electric cattle prods. Many were arrested by Clark, when they refused to use an alley entrance to the court house. 
Sheriff Jim Clark in front of African-Americans lined up for registration at the Dallas County Court House in Selma on Jan. 21, 1965; Photo by Bill Hudson/AP [source:]


While protests, mass meetings, sit ins and demonstrations led to numerous arrests over the course of January and February, black voter registration stagnated even a federal judge ordered the processing of a minimum of hundred voter applications per day. Attacks against nonviolent demonstrators increased and on February 18, 26-year old church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by state troopers at an evening march in Marion, Alabama, trying to protect his mother. He dies on February 26th in a Selma hospital.


In response to Jackson’s death, James Bevel (DCVL), Hosea Williams (SCLC), John Lewis (SNCC) and other activists organized a march with about 600 people from Selma to the state capital Montgomery on Sunday, March 7. They were stopped in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a blockade of state troopers and local law enforcement. Marchers were given a two-minute frame to disperse, after which troopers attacked them under cheers of onlookers. TV coverage of this “Bloody Sunday”, as the event came to be known, resulted in a response of national outrage and pictures like that of activist Amelia Boynton beaten unconscious received worldwide attention.

Seen around the world: Amelia Boynton Robinson is held after being violently beaten by Alabama State Troopers during an attempted protest march from Selma to Alabama's state capital ­Montgomery
Amelia Boynton at the Edmung Pettus Bridge [source:]

Martin Luther King along with other Selma activists planned to retry the Montgomery march on Tuesday March 9, two days after the first march. King called upon clergy throughout the nation to join this second march. A pending court order prohibited marching until March 11 and President Johnson urged King to call of the second march, until protection could be provided for the marchers. Despite this, on March 9 King and more than 2000 marchers, including those religious leaders who answered his short-notice invite, proceeded to Edmund Pettus Bridge to stop at the site of Bloody Sunday to pray, then march back to Selma after the prayer. This way both confrontation with state troopers and disobeying of the court order was avoided. The restraint of this second march gained the support of Johnson, who promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress.

On the evening of March 2 James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who joined the protests was attacked by local whites and died two days later. National concern over the situation rose and President Johnson insisted on Alabama Governor George Wallace to protect the marchers and support universal voting rights. In an address to Congress televised on March 15, he stated: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome”.

One day after the address, judge Frank M. Johnson approved of the demonstrators’ plan for a third march and prohibited Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing the marchers. On March 17, the president submitted a voting rights legislation to Congress.

March 21 finally saw the third march leaving Selma, with judge Johnson’s order of a limit of 300 marchers exceeded by 25.000 people on the last day of the march. On March 25, the march reached the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, with Martin Luther King proclaiming: “the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man”.

Voting Rights Act of 1965/Aftermath

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed on August 6 by President Johnson in the presence of several activists, including Martin Luther King, with Johnson recalling the “outrage of Selma”. The act would prohibit discriminatory voting laws, aiming for equal voting participation of minorities. Two days later King noted in an address to the SCLC that “Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965”. While earlier voters registration campaigns like the 1964 Freedom Summer and the previous local activity of the DCVL laid the groundwork for the 1965 Selma campaign, the involvement of King and other prominent activists is seen as having brought necessary media attention (both national and international) to the cause. The ensuing pressure on local and national government then resulted in the success of the movement.


Slide show featuring 40 photographies of the Selma events (bottom of article):


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